Sociology Index

Romani Customs and Traditions

Books On Customs And Traditions

Romany or Romanis are of of Indo-Aryan origin. The Romanies arrived in Europe in the 14th century. They had the ability to adjust to outside groups and in some places the Romanis were dominant enough to assimilate outsiders. The Romanis lost their discrete identity in some places.

Romany chal is a male Gypsy.
Romany chi or Romany chai, is a Gypsy girl.
Romany rye is a man who associates with Gypsies but is not a Gypsy.

Romanis adapt to the requirements of their surroundings but they fear that over time integration could lead to assimilation, and the eventual disappearance of Romaniya. Romanis had a composite population from the very beginning, with different ethnic groups brought together during their initial great migration from India.

Romani or Romany population and the Romani people came into being outside of India, though the various ethnic elements began inside India.

The Romani population has grown fragmented in different places, to such an extent that one group may deny the legitimacy of another group.

There is no single group who can call themselves the a true Roma.

  • Roma may be nomadic, semi-sedentary, or sedentary
  • Roma speak many dialects of Romanes, and some Roma may not speak Romanes at all
  • Roma may live in rural or urban areas

Rom, Rrom Roma and Rroma, are used here instead of the words Gypsy and Gypsies. Some Romani groups do not call themselves Roma, such as the Romanichal, Gitanos, Kalé, Sinti, Manush, and others, but refer to other groups as Roma.

Romani Marriage Customs and Traditions
Though there have been references of Roma immorality, Romas follow strict rules of sexual behavior. maariage is within their particular tribe and most Roma conform by marrying within their group. They like to maintain tribal and social purity. If a Roma male marries a gadji, his community may eventually accept her, provided that she adopts the Romani way of life. But it is a worse violation of the marimé code for a Roma female to marry a gadjo, because Roma women are the guarantors for the survival of the population.

Many tribes consider the children Roma only if the father is Roma. Roma expect females to be virgins when they marry. The Roma perceive marriage as the end of a woman's innocence. Marriages for Roma are generally early, between age nine and age fourteen.

The first step in contemplating marriage is the selection of the bride. In many parts of the world, this is done just as it would be done in non-Roma society. The boy does the courting, and when the young couple agree to marry they become engaged and exchange modest gifts. Parents are consulted, but the decision is made by the young people.

Bride price is still maintained in Roma tribes. Bride price is a payment made by the family of the groom to the family of the bride. It compensates them for the loss of a daughter and also guarantees that she will be treated well.

In many Roma tribes prospective bride and groom may be consulted, but their opinions are rarely considered in making a final decision. They carefully consider all the young, unmarried women in the group, evaluating their individual qualities. Because of integration into non-Roma societies, many young couples have opposed arranged engagements and marriages and have eloped.

Bride price is negotiated between the parents, particularly over the amount of the darro, or dowry. Bride price is meant to compensate for the potential earning power of the bori, or daughter-in-law, who has been taken from her family to join that of her husband.

The character of the girl's family, as well as their prestige in the community is very important. Physical appearance of a bride is not very important. The prospective brides are judged on their merits, such as health, stamina, strength, dispositions, manners, and domestic skills.

Rejection of a formal proposal is considered a disgrace. If all goes well, the father of the boy then calls on the father of the girl. It is a polite and rather serious meeting. The purpose is to obtain the formal consent of the girl's father, and to establish a price to be paid for the bride. This money is to compensate the father for the loss of his daughter, and not as the purchase of a bride.

The discussion can be a long one, centering on the estimated value of the future bride. All the future bride's desired qualities are taken into consideration. In addition, the girl's father calculates how much his daughter has cost him since birth, since he is in effect giving her away.

The wedding, called the abiav, is largely a symbolic act, with no religious significance. Though Roma conform to local laws and customs in the countries in which they marry, the non-Roma religious or civil ceremonies are formalities for them. The mere fact that two people have agreed to live together and share their lives together constitutes marriage, and no formal ritual is required. This does not mean that they do not take marriage seriously. They simply do not believe in the importance of a formal wedding ceremony under the jurisdiction of a church or a state. Ordinary civil and religious marriages are becoming more frequent, if only to round off a traditional ceremony.

A few Roma wedding rites are centered on bread. In one rite, the bride and groom each take a piece of bread and place a drop of their blood on the bread. They then exchange and eat each other's bread. In another ritual, the young couple sit down, surrounded by relatives and friends. A small amount of salt and bread is then placed on the knees of the bride. The groom takes some of the bread, puts salt on it, and eats it. The bride does the same. The union of salt and bread symbolizes a harmonious future together for the groom and bride.

When the celebration has ended, it is time for the groom to take his bride to his home. The bride's family kisses the girl and they weep as they unbraid her hair, a symbol for her new marital status. Her new mother-in-law helps the bride knot her diklo, or head scarf, a sign that she is a married woman. She is never seen again without this diklo in public.

Married couple take their places as full members of the community. The major change for the man is that he is now socially accepted by other married men. Till they are parents they will be able to refer to each other by their first names.

Marriages among Roma are serious commitments, and there are strict obligations on both sides. If a girl is found guilty of adultery, she must be taken back by her parents, who, in addition, must return the bride price to the husband's father. Infidelity in marriage historically has had serious consequences for the wife, including corporal punishment.

Watching the dead
The most important element in the cult of the dead among the Gypsies is ensuring the respect due to the dead person. An obligatory part of the cult is watching the dead, if possible, in his or her home. This may go on for several nights, or even until the funeral. However, the latest possible date for the removal and burial of the dead is regulated by strict rules, which are irreconcilable with the tradition of wake. The Roma do everything to keep the deceased among their relatives, in their own homes for the longest possible time, even if this means bribing the municipal health office.

Religion and Superstitions
The Roma cannot be said to have a "religion" of their own. They have usually adopted the faiths of the countries in which they live. Among the Roma can be found Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims. Many prefer to carry out religious rituals in their own homes or in the context of folk observances.

The best known Romani religious festivals are the annual pilgrimages to Saintes Maries de la Mer on the Mediterranean coast of France and Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, Canada. In Saintes Maries de la Mer, Sara the Black is paid homage to by the Roma on the 24-26 of May. In Quebec, the Roma pay homage to Saint Anne on July 26. These annual religious festivals are also used as social gatherings for the Roma.

Though they have, for practical purposes, adopted the religions of those with whom they have come into contact, formal religion is often supplemented by faith in the supernatural, in omens and curses. This body of superstitions varies among different Roma groups, but it is to some extent a factor in the lives of all of them.

Roma believe in their powers, as exemplified by their use of curses, called amria, and healing rituals. They practice fortune telling only for the benefit of gadje, and as a source of livelihood, but not among themselves. The fortune teller is always a woman, called a drabardi. The concept of fortune telling contains several independent elements that are misleadingly grouped together. One element is foretelling the future, called drabaripé or drabarimos. Another element relates to healing powers, which the Roma do practice among themselves. The healing elements of fortune telling are called "advising." Both elements are based on a belief in the supernatural.

Good luck charms, amulets, and talismans are common among Roma. They are carried to prevent misfortune or heal sickness. The female healer who prescribes these traditional cures or preventatives is called a drabarni or drabengi. Some Roma carry bread in their pockets as protection against bad luck, or bibaxt, and supernatural spirits or ghosts, called muló. Horseshoes are considered good luck by some Roma just as they are by non-Roma.

Since Roma feel that illness is an unnatural condition, called prikaza, there are many supernatural ways in which they believe disease can be prevented or cured. One method of lowering a fever has been to shake a young tree. In this way the fever is transferred from the sick person's body to the tree. Another method to bring down fever has been to drink powdered portions of certain animals, dissolved in spirits, to the accompaniment of a chant. Some beliefs include carrying a mole's foot as a cure for rheumatism, and carrying a hedgehog's foot to prevent a toothache. Any number of herbs, called drab, are used for the prevention or cure of various diseases. Herbalism may be practiced by both sexes. Some of these herbs, called sastarimaskodrabaró, actually have medicinal value in addition to their supernatural qualities.

Most of Roma society relies heavily on distinctions between behavior that is pure, vujo or wuzho, and polluted, or marimé. Marimé has a dual meaning to the Roma. It refers both to a state of pollution or defilement as well as to the sentence of expulsion imposed for violation of purity rules or any behavior disruptive to the Roma community. Pollution and rejection are thus closely associated with one another.

The marimé concept applied to personal hygiene means "dirty" or "polluted." Much of it stems from the division of a woman's body into two parts, above the waist and below the waist. A woman is clean from the waist up and "polluted" from the waist down. There is no shame, lashav, connected with the upper part of the body. The lower part of the body is, however, an object of shame, baro lashav, because it is associated with menstruation. The fact that blood flows without injury seems to be the proof of a bodily impurity. This concept of marimé as applied to women is one explanation in many tribes the Roma women wear long skirts and the fact that the bottom of those skirts must not touch a man other than the Roma woman's husband.

A woman by tradition is cosidered dirty. A woman in a house must not pass in front of a man, or even between two men. She must go around them in order to avoid "infecting" them. At meals, the men must be served from the rear for the same reason. If a Roma woman is not wearing the traditional long skirt, she must cover her legs with a blanket or coat when sitting. Women's clothes and men's clothes cannot be washed together, because of the impurities of the women's bodies.

Traditionally, a woman's legs must not show. Exposure of the legs is a grave offense, so long full skirts must be worn. It is probable that long skirts were once thought of as protection against sexual advances, but they also cover the lower part of the body, which is considered marimé, or "impure." These skirts are generally of bright colors, often consisting of many layers.

Except for color, a woman does not have a varied wardrobe. Among many tribes, if a woman is married she must display that fact by keeping her head covered by a diklo, or head scarf. Women usually allow their hair to grow long. Their hair may then be braided or rolled into a bun on the back of the head. Roma women usually wear jewelry, not only for its beauty, but for its intrinsic value. Most do not have bank accounts or safe deposit boxes, so they feel most secure carrying their valuables on their own persons. Traditionally, acquired wealth has been converted into jewelry or gold coins called galbi, the latter sometimes worn on clothing as adornments, or woven into the hair, as with the women of the Kalderash nation.

As for men, there is really no characteristic clothing. Since the head is regarded as the body's focal point, many Roma men draw attention to it by wearing large hats and wide mustaches. For festive occasions, they will wear a good suit and show a preference for bright colors. Most of them own one suit at a time and wear it until it is frayed. A brightly colored neck scarf may be worn on special occasions. Generally, however, their clothing is indistinguishable from that of the gadje among whom they live or travel.

Conditioned by their nomadic way of life their diet has consisted largely of what was readily available. This included wild fruits, berries, leafy plants, mollusks, and small mammals. Roma have gradually come into greater contact with people of the cities and their eating habits have conformed more and more to those of the non-Roma.
A day will generally begin with very strong black coffee, heavily sweetened with sugar. Coffee is a staple of Roma existence for many tribes, and many cups may be taken in the course of a day. There is usually no lunch, and dinner is served at sunset, or, since the food is generally on the stove all afternoon, whenever anyone is hungry. The basic element of this dinner is a thick, fatty vegetable soup, or stew, with any available vegetables or greens put into it. It is usually made even more hearty by the addition of potatoes, rice, or pasta. Sometimes meat is served, generally broiled or cooked on a spit. Game, such as rabbit and game fowl, are enjoyed when possible. Garlic is a very commonly used seasoning. Some tribes sometimes serve maize cakes instead of bread. Water is the most often served beverage during the course of a meal.

Ceremonial events such as christenings, marriages, and religious festivals are occasions for community activity and sharing. Enormous quantities of food and drink are consumed during these celebrations, and the preparation is long and enthusiastic. A favorite European Roma dish has traditionally been roasted hedgehog, although this delicacy is gradually falling from favor among many Roma. It has a rich and succulent meat with a pork-like flavor, which is also enjoyed by some non-Roma Europeans. Ideally, this animal is flavored with garlic and placed skin and all above burning hot coals or stones. In this way, it cooks in its own juices. When the roasting is completed, the animal's prickles are shaved or picked off and the skin is peeled back. The meat is served, sometimes wrapped in aromatic leaves. Chicken and other fowl can also be cooked this way. On these special occasions beer, wine and other spirits are substituted for water at the meal.

Marimé taboos extend to animals as well, from the edibility of certain types of meat to pet ownership. Romaniya prohibits cruelty to animals and they may only be killed for food. The German Sinti consider eating horse flesh a serious offense, as do other tribes. The exclusion of horse meat has more to do with respect than to marime, the horse has been so important to the Roma's mobility and survival in the past.